LEXINGTON, Va. - The #7 VMI Keydets defeated the #10 Radford Highlanders, 55-53, in a dramatic first round of the 2012 Advance Auto Parts Men's Basketball Championship, Monday, Feb. 27 at Cameron Hall. The Keydets advance to Wednesday's quarterfinals and will play No. 2 seed Coastal Carolina at 12:00 p.m. at UNC Asheville's Kimmel Arena.
With 1:19 remaining, Radford's (6-26) Johnathan Edwards split two free throws to pull the Highlanders within a point. The Keydets' (15-15) Stan Okoye missed a jumper at the other end, and Radford had a chance to take the lead. Point guard R.J. Price drove into the lane, but a bounce pass attempt was intercepted by Okoye. The junior then made two free throws with 19 seconds remaining, making it a 54-51 game.
The drama was not over, however, as RU's Javonte Green drew a foul with 10 seconds remaining, and went to the line with a chance to cut into the lead. Green missed the front end of the 1 and 1, and Ron Burks hit 1 of 2 at the other end to make it a four-point game, 55-51. Price hit a two-pointer in the final second, but VMI successfully inbounded the ball and ran out the clock for the win.
The victory moved the Keydets to 3-0 in games they had hosted as part of the Big South Championship, and tied the school record for home wins with 13. VMI won its fifth straight game over Radford, but the average margin of victory in the three Keydet wins over RU this season was under four points per contest.
Radford was led by Price, who scored 17 points, while VMI saw Okoye score 16 points and grab nine rebounds. Both teams had off shooting nights from the floor, with Radford shooting just 16 of 48 (33.3%) for the night despite a 10 of 22 effort (45.5%) in the second half. VMI was 16 of 47 (34.0%), but shot just 6 of 21 in the second half as Radford nearly rallied from a 12-point first half deficit.
#7 VMI got the game underway with a great deal of energy, opening the game with an 8-0 run that included two authoritative dunks. Meanwhile, the visiting Highlanders started the game cold, as they shot just 2 for 15 to start the game, and VMI had a 16-7 lead following two D.J. Covington free throws at the 10:53 mark. The Keydets then widened that gap to double-digits for the first time at the 6:40 mark, doing so on a three-pointer by Jordan Weethee.
Despite continuing to struggle from the field, Radford stayed close on the strength of solid outside shooting. Kyle Noreen hit his second triple of the half with 3:02 left, cutting the lead back to single digits, 26-17. VMI briefly reasserted a double-digit margin, but Price drilled a triple with 20 seconds left in the half, making it a 29-21 halftime score.
In the opening half, Radford was briefly on pace to match the tournament record for lowest field goal percentage, a 21.2% mark set in 2005. The Highlanders wrapped up the opening half at 23.1% (6 of 26), while five of those makes were three-pointers. VMI hit 10 of 26 (38.5%), and the Keydets' Keith Gabriel led all scorers with eight first half points.
Radford came out strong in the second half, scoring seven of the first nine points to cut the margin to 31-28 with 17:39 remaining. The lead remained at three when Green hit a jumper with 16:04 left, pulling his team to within 35-32, but VMI responded by running off six straight points and taking a nine-point cushion, 41-32, with 13:24 to play.
The Highlanders came right back, responding with a 7-2 run capped by two Jareal Smith free throws, and chopped the margin back to three, 42-39. The Keydets briefly took a seven-point lead once again, but Radford scored seven straight points, capped by a Price three-pointer at 6:48, and the Highlanders had tied the game for the first time, 48-48.
On the next trip down the floor, VMI's Michael Sparks hit a three-pointer to make it a 51-48 game, and the Keydets would not trail again. The Highlanders, however, scored on a layup by Chance Smith, and it was 51-50 with 3:30 remaining.
The VMI fans had to hold their breath on the next Keydet possession, when Okoye and Edwards came together going for a rebound. Edwards fell into Okoye's right knee, and the VMI junior was briefly taken to the locker room. He came back approximately a minute later, and played a key role in the final, dramatic moments. After Edwards' foul, Quinton Upshur split two foul shots, setting up the final portions of the contest.
The win marked the first time in the Duggar Baucom era at VMI that the Keydets had won a game scoring under 60 points, while Radford ended a season in which the Highlanders saw two players named to the conference's all-freshman team.
Quotes - VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom
"It was tough. Credit Radford, they came in with nothing to lose. I told our guys that they had to make plays at the end, and they did. Quinton Upshur had a huge defensive play right at the end, and Stan Okoye hit some key free throws after he came back."
"I was just proud of the guys for persevering. I just wanted Wayne Whiting, Ron Burks, Keith Gabriel and Michael Sparks to win their last home game."
"Our free throw shooting wasn't stellar, but we made enough at the end, when we had to. I was really pleased with the defensive stops we made, and the big rebounds we got. I'm just proud of the guys."